Hit or Sh**: BBC America’s DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Spoiler Alert: I did not like the pilot of DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY. Even checking my predisposed hatred of Max Landis at the door, I found it needlessly confusing, obnoxiously try-hard in its attempts to be quirky and irreverent, and introducing an absolutely unprecedented amount of subplots that it has no hope of adequately resolving. But I’m going to save you the trouble of reading through the article to get down to my verdict and surprise everyone by recommending this show anyway. Much like cult albums such as MY TEENAGE DREAM ENDED or PHILOSOPHY OF THE WORLD, DIRK GENTLY isn’t enjoyable by traditional merits, but so willfully attempts to frustrate and subvert the context of these merits in question that I have no choice but to be impressed. This should have never in a million years been something that made it onto TV screens, and the fact that it’s here is reason enough to give it a shot.
I wish I could succinctly summarize the plot in a short paragraph, but “plot” is really an operative word here. Here’s what makes sense: Todd (Elijah Wood) is a hapless dolt who works at a hotel. One day, he opens a penthouse suite to discover a horrific murder. He’s a prime suspect. Simple enough, right? Well, buckle your seats dear readers, because as soon as Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett) arrives, narrative cohesion goes to the dogs. Dirk Gently is a “holistic detective.” I don’t know what that means, Todd doesn’t know what that means, and Dirk only gives us a blistering fast expository monologue with a bunch of jibber-jabber about solving the “whole” problem. You see, Dirk was contacted by the man who was murdered before he was murdered to solve his murder…You still on board? Well, you’ll also have to juggle a subplot involving a holistic assassin who kidnaps a coder for unspecified reasons, something or other involving a man in a gorilla mask who was spotted at the hotel the day of the murder, and random cutaways to a chained up black woman who we’re never given any context for. Oh, and vaguely Eurasian space men with tranquilizer darts and cyberpunk hooligans.
For those of you expecting an orgy of transcendental tastelessness, I must unfortunately burst your bubble. DIRK GENTLY is well-produced. DIRK GENTLY is well acted (and Elijah Wood is as lovable as ever). DIRK GENTLY is politically correct and generally inoffensive. But you know what DIRK GENTLY is not? Comprehensible. In any remote stretch of the word. I would love to start taking shots at Crossfader’s Public Enemy No. 1, but in his begrudging defense, this is a series based on a Douglas Adams novel. As fans of the classic HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY will attest to, Adams has a trademark sense of bizarre, surrealist humor that works to great effect when put on the page. I suppose I must further give credit to Landis for managing to capture the general essence of an Adams novel, with inexplicable occurrences, off-kilter diatribes, colorful surface-level aesthetics, and an impish sense of mischief all manifesting themselves in the pilot. But whereas those things had me shaking with laughter in the sixth grade library, watching it as a television show a decade later just leaves me fundamentally exasperated.
I hate to shoot myself in the foot here as a critic, but there’s really not much else to say about DIRK GENTLY other than that it makes no sense. All other complaints can be tied to this problem as the root. Since we have to force ourselves to come to terms with this arbitrary menagerie of characters, we never have enough time to empathize or identify with any of them, leading to both Todd and Dirk being pretty much dead in the water. Todd’s given one “save the cat” scene wherein he literally gives his sister all of the money he has left, but this feels unjustified and also introduces the concept of Todd having a chronic disease that runs in his family that he’s both recovered from and has to help his sister through. And goodbye, that one’s off to the races, never to be heard from again as well! As for Dirk, he seems both otherworldly and invincible, which promises to be a yawn fest as he survives every challenge thrown his way, shooting off quips all the while. There’s presumably an antagonist to be had in the man wearing the gorilla mask, but this is also implied to be Dirk at the end, so I have no idea what point the pilot is trying to establish or how it will develop from here.
Me too Elijah, me too
My favorite part of the pilot was, surprise, the only subplot that makes some amount of sense. Zimmerfeld (Richard Schiff) and Estevez (Neil Brown, Jr.) are the two cops stuck with solving the penthouse murders, and have no time for Todd and Dirk’s metaphysical hoo-hah, which I can entirely relate to. Their confused attempts at understanding just what in the Hell is going on provides a logical anchor from which to assess the events of the pilot. Also in the pilot’s favor are the genuinely funny FBI duo of Colonel Scott Riggins (Miguel Sandoval) and Sergeant Hugo Friedkin (Dustin Millikan), who are stalking Dirk for reasons that I’m sure will soon be muddled. In addition, the pilot manages to find its footing every now and then with plot devices that are so ludicrous that they can’t help but be smiled at, such as the aforementioned cyberpunk hooligans who arrive unannounced, destroy Todd’s apartment, and leave.
Remember how at the beginning I said that I was still going to proclaim this a “Hit”? I’m sticking with that verdict. I left DIRK GENTLY genuinely angry and frustrated, but then I stepped back and realized that this is an accomplishment in its own right. For far too many of these pilots have I felt not a single stirring of emotion in my cold, dead heart. Yes, there are plenty of times where Landis makes it obvious how hip and cool he fancies himself. Yes, there are lots of self-aware moments where the characters admit to being as confused as the audience. Yes, there’s also a hefty dose of random, sometimes shocking violence. But I can guarantee you that DIRK GENTLY is a pilot that you’ll feel some type of way about, and in its own twisted way, that may be really all we can ask from it.
DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY airs on Sundays on BBC America